There are few things with more quirks and oddities than the English language. Indeed there are few languages in the world with as many abstract words as English, and these are some of the most commonly used words as well. But what is the most common word in English? Without further ado, let’s have a look at all the candidates for the most used word.
Easily in the number one spot (I’ve used it once already!). “The” is the definite article (used again) in technical jargon. In other words it’s a handy word that indicates that a noun is known to the speaker, writer, reader or listener. For a word with just three letters it really does punch well above its weight. In fact, according to one source, “the” accounts for as much as 5% of all language, although it occurs less when spoken than written.
You don’t even need three letters to be powerful, or so says “of”. Of is a handy word that probably has as many uses in our language as the liver does in our body. Among its most important is as an attributive, in other words to indicate possession of something. But it plays countless other roles. We can “think of” or “know of” or “dispose of” or even “die of” something. It can also indicate location or direction, such as “north of”.
I stand corrected. One letter is all it takes. Just look at “a”. “A” is in the special group of just two one letter words in English (the other being I). And we use it all the time because of its many functions. I won’t bore you by going through each one. “A” is like the opposite of ‘’the”. We call it the indefinite article, because it indicates nouns that are not known or specified by the speaker.
Never start a sentence with and. Hands up if your primary school teacher told you that at least a hundred times. “And” is used a lot partly because it’s the ultimate convenience. It allows us to effortlessly extend sentences, tack on afterthoughts – I’m about to do it here! – and finalise lists. The last function is subject to something of a debate surrounding the use of a comma before “and” in lists. This is known as the Oxford comma. Except that rather bizarrely, the Oxford style guide as of 2016 recommends against its use.
By now, you might be wondering if nearly all the most common words to roll off our tongues in fact mean nothing at all. To an extent this is true. I’m afraid our quintet is completely by yet another functional but unglamorous word, to. “To” literally gets us to places (linguistically at least). It’s also just about the only word that can come before every verb in order to create an infinitive, e.g. to do, to make etc.
A lot of words we use don’t have meaning as much as function. On one hand they appear bland or insipid. But their skill for multitasking also makes them attractive and rich. You could say that they join sentences like concrete joins bricks.